Trail Guide: Cathedral Grove Old Growth Forest in MacMillan Provincial Park, BC
Walk among 800 year-old-giant Douglas firs, some of the most accessible in all of BC.
Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park is an old growth forest on Vancouver Island. It’s about an hour from Nanaimo and two hours from Victoria or Tofino. It’s one of the most accessible old-growth forests in BC and is very popular. It’s almost like being at the Redwoods, but in BC (and a tad smaller).
Standing amongst the ancient, gigantic Douglas firs at Cathedral Grove is a humbling experience. You’ll feel awestruck by the sheer beauty and history of the 800-year-old forest. The trees reach for the sky and are taller than you’ll ever imagine. As you walk in their shadows, the golden rays of the sun trickle through the branches. Their bark is strong, thick from hundreds of years of growth and it’s amazing to think of what these trees have seen in their lifetime.
The trees are very old and some have root disease that causes them to fall without notice. Always be aware of this when you’re visiting and keep off the trails if it’s windy. Smoking is prohibited, but I feel like I shouldn’t have to say that. It’s an old forest.
Pets are allowed in the park but must be on a leash at all times. Always pick up after them and dispose of it properly.
- Difficulty: Easy
- Trail Type: Loop
- Length: Big Tree: 0.4 km, Living Forest: 0.5 km, Old Growth: 1.02 km (see map)
- Trailhead: Cathedral Grove parking lot
- Open Dates: Year-round
- Fee: Free
- Park Size: 301 ha
Cathedral Grove at MacMillan Provincial Park
MacMillan Provincial Park was created in February 1947 to protect the endangered, old-growth Douglas fir forest and its delicate ecosystem. Make sure you stay on the trail and don’t climb on the trees. Practice good trail etiquette and help protect the beautiful forest! As you explore, remember that thousands of years before it was a provincial park, the Hupacasath First Nations had a deep spiritual connection with the area.
About 350 years ago, a devastating wildfire raged through Cathedral Grove. Later, in 1997, a giant windstorm swept through and wiped out a ton of trees. While many of the trees today are about 300 years old, there are still survivors from these natural disasters that are an astounding 800+ years old! It’s truly humbling to stand among these giants.
Visiting Cathedral Grove
Cathedral Grove is located on Highway 4, just outside of Port Alberni. It’s located literally off the side of the highway and, because it’s so easy to access, it’s a very popular tourist stop. Even with all the people, Cathedral Grove is totally worth the stop.
The highway runs between Cathedral Grove and the small stretch of road often becomes a bottleneck. The highway is single lane and narrow, with wide shoulders and large ditches. Although there’s limited parking at the trailhead, the large shoulders provide plenty of parking on the side of the highway. We had no trouble finding parking a couple hundred feet from the trailhead. Be very careful when you’re crossing the highway.
There are outhouses and clearly marked maps at both trailheads. On the northern side of the highway is the Old Growth Trail and on the southern side are the Big Tree and Living Forest Trails.
Old Growth Trail, 1.02 km (Easy)
The Old Growth Trail is made of two smaller loops, the Hollow Tree Trail and the Tree of Life Trail. The entire loop is just under one kilometer and is mostly dirt with very little elevation change. When you enter the forest, you’ll find yourself in a quiet sanctuary.
Despite being right across the road from the other trails, the Old Growth Trail is surprisingly different. The 1997 windstorm is very evident and there are many fallen trees with smaller trees taking root beneath. Even today, over twenty years later, the forest is clearly still recovering.
About halfway through the loop there’s a trail to Cameron Lake which is a great place to go swimming or fishing. Rumour has it that a giant “something” lurks at the bottom of Cameron Lake. Looks like the Okanagan isn’t the only place with a giant swimming animal lurking in its depths!
The Living Forest & Big Tree Trails, 0.9 km
The Living Forest Trail is basically a big loop and the Big Tree Trail cuts through the middle. They’re about a kilometer long and are an easy, comfortable walk. The main trails are wheelchair accessible as well.
Gorgeous boardwalks lead you through the thick, green forest. Lichen clings to the branches and hangs like a protective blanket over the forest. Small trees grow from the fallen giants, growing stronger every day. Moss infiltrates the boardwalk, eating away at the edges and claiming it for its own. The trail is flat and an easy walk.
The Big Tree Trail will bring you to the largest Douglas fir tree in the park. The Big Tree is over 800 years old, 9 meters around, and 72 meters tall. That’s taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The sheer size of the tree is overwhelming! It’s probably the closest to the Redwoods I’ve ever experienced without actually being in the Redwoods.
Thank you very much for the info Sam! This was the best description of the trails and what to expect that I found when doing my research.
I’m so glad you found it helpful, Janelle! Hope you enjoyed the trail (if you’ve already gone) 🙂
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